New York

Thomas Lanigan Schmidt

Holly Solomon Gallery

The faux naïf icons of Thomas Lanigan Schmidt map out a territory in which kitsch jostles with folk craft and fine art references, Italian rococco collides with German baroque, and childlike play is intertwined with an almost obsessive religiosity. It’s these blatant contradictions—and their only-semi-resolved status—that make Schmidt’s work so unsettling, so provocative. Like good cake, his piled-up, heavily encrusted objects are a rich diet, one best ingested in carefully rationed portions. In some ways, Schmidt resembles a genuine naïf; he doesn’t know when to quit. By ignoring conventional notions of beauty Schmidt walks a wavering line between right and righteous. But unlike a thorough “primitive,” Schmidt displays enough knowingness—not to mention subtle skill—to leave room for dialectical drama, heading off potential hermeticism which would leave the works powerless and precious.

Schmidt’s “rationalism” is that of a systematic visionary, and it’s so extreme that it becomes vertiginous, mystical, and even transcendental through the most unlikely means. Appropriately Schmidt’s subject in this show was Venice—the avatar of excess, piled-up gilt, and decaying rot. “The Venetian Glass Series,” 1984–85, is a group of collage reliefs made from flashy junk materials: tin foil, cardboard, cellophane, glitter, sequins, and old postcards—decorative detritus culled from the compost heap of cultural garbage. Within this format, there’s considerable variation. Sometimes the subject is rendered literally; a “Venetian Glass” sunset is red-streaked, echoing the garish Venetian sunset on an antique postcard of the city which is embedded in the collage relief’s background. There are impressionistic “glasses,” like The Silver Glitter Corner of the Church—A Purple Window Seen Behind the Frozen Billows of Sunset, 1984—an abstracted riot of glitzy materials in silver, purple, and rose. Many of the “glasses” veer toward the totally fanciful, as in an implausible Venetian waterfall depicted in cascading strands of blue cellophane on a frothy sequined background, or in Multiple Orgasms and High Tides in St. Mark’s Square, 1984—perhaps the most outrageous example—where the semenlike cellophane streams amid watery sequins and glitter.

Of course, Venice itself is as much fantasy as a real city; echoes of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice in this extravagant exhibition reinforced Schmidt’s controlled ecstasy, keeping it from registering as a turned-in fetishistic exercise.

Underlining this point were the constructions Schmidt also exhibited, reliquarylike sculptures on pedestals in which twisting strands of foil-wrapped cardboard created baroque enclosures for a treasury of unlikely venerated, objects: medallions, postcards, plastic goblets, and other various chotchkas. These works made clear some of Schmidt’s Duchamp-like maneuvers—the “glass” nomenclature, the translation of a fantasy-riddled subject through studied whimsy, the deliberate flaunting of taste, and the hints of alchemical mysteries, as in Fire and Ice: Both Burn, 1985. Schmidt’s fanciful and deeply felt contradictions, however, put him beyond Duchamp’s logic into a singular realm of Schmidtian swoon.

John Howell